It Ain’t The Road That Kills You…

It’s the paper walls.

That’s from a song I happen to love by Marc Cohn:

The portion of the song where he says that doesn’t actually occur until the end. (At 3:39 on that video.) If you listen to it you may be asking yourself what on earth that song has to do with anything except people making really strange choices about who they hook up with and when, but stay with me for a moment.

Because, as always, I take something completely different away from that song than probably anyone else would. See, I hear that line “It ain’t the road that kills you…” and I think that the song is about how it isn’t being alone that’s the problem, it’s knowing that others aren’t and being able to hear (in this case) what you’re missing and how knowing what you’re missing is the real issue.

Now to bring this back to writing.

I ran a promo on Rider’s Revenge this weekend. It ends today. And, good news, I sold at least 374 copies of book 1 and 24 copies each of books 2 and 3. The promo isn’t even over yet and it’s already been profitable and sell-through to books 2 and 3 over the long-term will make it more so.

Fantastic, right?

Except I kind of felt like crap about it the last two days. Because part of the promo was an international-only Bookbub. And according to their site, the average number of sales from this particular list should be 550, but I’m only at about 300 off of the Bookbub.

It paid for itself. And I think I’m still missing Google sales and maybe even some iTunes sales. But I’m not going to hit 550. Which bummed me out.

I had a successful promo. I made a profit. I hopefully have a couple hundred new fans. And yet…knowing that others have done better running the same promo spoiled it for me.

It’s like we’re all trying to hike a mountain here. And I know that as long as I keep going and putting one foot in front of the other that I’ll get there eventually. But it’s harder when someone breezes by like there’s nothing to it or the person you started the trail with leaves you behind because you’re going so much slower.

(Real life experience: I hiked Mt. Quandary, a 14er, years ago with a couple co-workers. They were both in excellent shape and left me behind after the first hour or so. But I made it to the top. Eventually. Just in time for them to be ready to turn around and head back down…)

It’s easy to always be looking to others and feel constantly dissatisfied.  Because there will always be someone selling more, getting more reviews or better reviews, or signing high-profile deals. But you can’t do that. It’ll kill you.

Step back and remind yourself what you have done.  See how far you’ve come. Embrace the positives.

(I say as I continue to sit here and sulk.)

Remember, it isn’t the journey that will kill you, it’s comparing yourself to others and letting their successes (or how you feel about them) defeat you.

The NaNoWriMo Writing Tools Bundle Is Here (And I’m In It!)

So this is the bit of news I was alluding to yesterday. My books, Excel for Writers and Excel for Self-Publishers, are both part of the 2017 Nano Storybundle. For $15 you can get both of my books as well as…

  • How to Make a Living With Your Writing by Joanna Penn
  • Hurting Your Characters by Michael J. Carlson
  • Writing as a Team Sport by Kevin J. Anderson
  • The Author’s Guide to Vellum by Chuck Heintzelman
  • Time Management by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
  • The Magic Bakery by Dean Wesley Smith
  • Business for Breakfast Vol 6: The Healthy Professional Writer by Leah Cutter
  • Q&A For Science Fiction Writers by Mike Resnick
  • The Unofficial Scrivener Workbook by Michael J. Carlson
  • Story Structure and Master Chapter Outline Workbook by C. Michael Jefferies
  • Blood From Your Own Pen by Sam Knight

Look at that list. Joanna Penn who has a brilliant podcast. Kevin J. Anderson who co-wrote the Dune series and is the mastermind behind the Superstars Writing Seminars. Kristine Kathryn Rusch whose Thursday business blog posts are a must-read.  And Dean Wesley Smith whose classes on depth and character definitely strengthened my fiction writing.

And those are just the ones that happened to be in my list of web links. I am honored and humbled to be amongst their number. (And proud enough of the Excel guides that I think they hold their own in that list.)

You’d have to pay $10 to get both of my books. For $5 more, look what else you can get. (And, of course, you can always pay more if you think that’s warranted since part of the proceeds are also going to charity.)

So, what are you waiting for? Go buy yourself some brilliant writerly wisdom while it’s cheap.

(I’ll be reading all the books myself and probably mentioning a few here on the blog during the next two months while the books are available. And I’ll also tell you how this all came about in another blog post, since that’s what would matter most to me as a self-publisher.)

AMS Ads and Names With Initials

The other day someone mentioned that they’d run an experiment with names that use initials (like R.K. Thorne) and that they’d determined that you get the most impressions from AMS ads if you leave the periods out of the name.

I haven’t done as systematic of an experiment as the individual who posted about it, but I had been thinking that AMS ads do behave strangely with author names that have initials in them and had wanted to go look at my results to see what I could see.

While I generally agree with that person’s conclusion, I’m not sure for me that it was quite as black and white.

So let me share some numbers.

One of the authors in my fantasy novel’s also-boughts is R.K. Thorne who is listed on Amazon as R. K. Thorne, which interestingly seems to be the one variant I hadn’t tried. At various points I had used r k thorne, r.k. thorne, and rk thorne. And the clear winner was rk thorne which had almost three times as many impressions as r.k. thorne.  The r k thorne option had almost none.

Another one though isn’t as clear-cut as that.  It’s T.A. White who is listed that way with no space between the two letters. In that case I had at various points used t a white, t.a white, t.a. white, and ta white.  The one that had the most impressions was the one with the typo, t.a white, followed closely by t.a. white and ta white which were almost equal.  The last one, t a white, had the least. (One reason for the difference might be because when I type ta white into the Amazon search bar it shows towels instead of books.)

One more example would be K.A. Linde.  I had tried ka linde, k a linde, and k.a. linde.  By far the best performing of the bunch was ka linde. Neither of the others did much.

The problem with my numbers is that I didn’t do this in a controlled experiment where the bids were the same and the words were started at the exact same time. What I think I’m comfortable in saying is that if you do go without a period in there don’t bother with spaces between the two initials.  So use ka linde not k a linde or rk thorne not r k thorne.

Also, if you do have names with a period in them anywhere, definitely be sure to test out variants of the name without the period included.  I have a few with full first names and a middle initial where dropping the period from the middle initial seems to have resulted in more impressions as well.  (But others where it didn’t.)

Random Thoughts on Ethics and Regulations

So my day job, the one that actually pays bills, involves regulations. I used to enforce those rules and now I consult for companies that need to comply with them.

I’m in an industry that has high barriers to entry. Anyone who wants to start a company in this field has to go through a months’-long review process and prove themselves to be qualified and without known criminal issues.  Anyone who wants to work for a company in this field in customer-facing sales roles also has to prove a certain amount of knowledge about the product as well as about the rules.

Which is not to say that the industry is without its ethical lapses.  I brought more than one case against individuals who out and out engaged in horrible activity involving vulnerable people and then sat there and lied to me about it to my face while on the record.  People with zero conscience.

Those people definitely existed and are attracted to industries like mine because of the amount of money involved.

But far more common were the ones in the middle.  The ones who would never set out to do something blatantly against the rules, but who end up doing so anyway either out of ignorance or greed.

I can’t tell you how many times I heard over the years, “But X person does it and they’ve never gotten into trouble” or “But we’ve been doing it this way for years.”  Which was true in some instances.  One of the biggest investigations I was part of involved thousands of companies who had been doing something wrong for years that cost their customers millions if not billions of dollars.

But you know what?  When that was finally discovered, it didn’t matter that everyone had been doing it that way for years.  Perhaps it did influence how the situation was handled, but it didn’t keep it from being handled. And once it was discovered and people were adequately informed of the issue, they were expected to comply.

The problem with regulation is you can never list everything people shouldn’t do. But if you try to use a principles-based approach you will soon find that your idea of “fair dealing” or “best efforts” or “good customer experience” are not the same as someone else’s. What seems obvious to you is not obvious to them.

You can be damned sure that there will always be people in every industry trying to find the cracks, to get that little advantage that will let them “win”.  These aren’t the ones who flat out ignore the rules (there are always those as well).  These are the ones who push right up against the edge or find the one place where you haven’t been clear enough or aren’t looking close enough and exploit it for all it’s worth.

Right now I spend most of my time dealing with an industry with absolutely no barriers to entry–self-publishing. And there you see this play out every single day.  Someone will say, “Well no one told me I couldn’t scrape content off the internet and package it as my own and then click-bot my book up the ranks and get a hundred fake reviews on it so that Mary Sue in Idaho thought it was a legitimate book…”

No, they didn’t.  Because they thought it should be obvious that that was a shitty thing to do.

The problem with self-publishing is that bad techniques spread like wildfire, and that the big enforcer, Amazon, is slow to act. So by the time something spins out of control there are hundreds or thousands of people, some who just didn’t know better, engaging in it who then get slapped hard by losing their accounts or having their books pulled.

Having seen a number of these conversations happen, I don’t know how you even teach people to see what’s “right”.  A lot of these scenarios that have cropped up (like offering Book A for sale for two weeks and then changing the content out so it’s hardly the same but keeping the reviews from Book A), seem pretty obvious things you shouldn’t do.  But each time one of these scenarios crops up I find myself amazed by the number of people defending it. Either as perfectly legitimate or what they have to do to stay competitive.

And it’s just…Sigh.  More than I can discuss in one blog post.

So let me try to sum something up here:

Regulations and rules are annoying. And some are poorly written. But they exist because at some point someone did something that made them necessary. And if you don’t want there to be more regulations or ridiculous requirements or costs to what you do, the best thing to do is to always step back and ask not “Do the rules allow me to do this?” but instead “Does this pass the smell test? If I had to sit across the table from someone like a judge and tell them exactly what I’ve done without providing justifications or excuses, would they agree with what I did?”  If the answer is no, don’t do it.

The Difference AMS Can Make

Time for my first AMS post.  I’m fairly active in the AMS Ads Learning thread on Kboards, but I’m horrible at posting screenshots on user forums, so this blog gives me the chance to show something I’ve been talking about there for a couple of months now.

AMS is definitely the reason my sales have increased over the last year. I had played with them some in 2015, but I really started running them consistently in July of last year. I didn’t say much about it for the first four or five months because, well, the more people who use them the more expensive they get.  And it was nice to actually have steady full-price sales for once.  I’m not busting out the champagne by any means, but to be able to sell my books at full price month after month?  That I like to see.

I will say that the more genre-targeted your covers are, the better you’ll do.  That’s why, for example, my Rider’s Revenge series does well with AMS whereas Erelia never really did the few times I tried to advertise it.  (I define well as consistently ranking under 100K.  If you’re someone looking to move from 25K to 2K ranking, I’m not the person to look to.  But if you want to move from 250K+ ranking to under 100K, then AMS and what I’m going to talk about may help with that.)

Ironically, the example I’m about to discuss is for my first-in-series romance novel which I have yet to link to here on the blog.  But it’s the ad that’s really doing well these days and the one that most clearly shows how a free run combined with AMS can really help move a book to a higher rank.

Here’s the visual of that:SWH AMS Snapshot Free Run Comparison - Copy

As you can see above, in February 2016 I did a free run on this book which resulted in about 3,750 downloads and a free rank in the top 50 of the Amazon store.  The book was in KU at the time and I was happy that the promo paid for itself through page reads since it was a standalone with no other books under that author name.

But you can also see that the free run didn’t result in ongoing sales of that title.  It quickly sank back down to the 700K range where it stayed until I started running AMS ads on it in November 2016. (I had tried a few ads on it before and they sort of kind of worked, but November is when I finally had an ad that worked steadily to generate a few sales here or there.)

May 2017 I decided to do another free run.  I’d just released a related standalone and wanted to goose sales of that title while it was still in its first 90 days.  This time I had about 3,500 downloads and the book once again made it to the top 50 free in the Amazon store.

But now I had AMS ads running on it.  And when it came off free, those ads allowed me to maintain the rank I’d achieved through the free run as you can see very clearly on the chart above.

See below to understand what a difference that made in terms of sales and page reads.

SWH AMS Snapshots Pre and Post Free Run - Copy

I was sort of limping along with my AMS ad on this book but the free run and the momentum it gave me, goosed that ad into running.  Since that free run I’ve had 145 sales at $4.99 and 193,000 page reads on that novel using AMS ads.  The only reason I’ve been able to sustain rank and continue to generate sales is AMS. I start my ad at $10 every morning and bump it up as it hits its budget throughout the day. If I don’t keep the ad running I can see my rank start to drop when the ad runs out of funds.

It’s also pretty clear to me that AMS ads run better on books that already have some sort of momentum. This is the same ad I was running before the free promo, but now it actually spends my budget.  And it takes me a lot less effort to keep this ad going than it does my other ads.

It hasn’t been cheap to keep this ad running. Romance is expensive to bid on.  (I pay about twice as much per click for a romance click as I do for a fantasy click.) I’m basically barely profitable on the ad for book 1 but that makes all the sales for book 2 profit.

For someone with a deep backlist or books in a related series where readthrough is really high, combining a free run with AMS could have a very powerful result.  Even for me with just two standalones under this pen name it’s been profitable.

Now, some caveats here if you want to try this strategy:

  1. This is only possible if the book is in KU at the time of the free run.  Some people will borrow a book rather than download it for free if it’s in KU. This means you can come off of a free run with an improved paid ranking, since those borrows count towards your paid rank. If you’re not in KU your ranking will drop after a free run because you’ll have no sales for the days while the book was free.
  2. Also, I think I’ve managed to sustain that rank because the book is still in KU. My full-read to buy ratio is about 2:1 in romance, so without those borrows boosting my rank I couldn’t have sustained the rank I reached.
  3. I think this approach is easier to do in romance, at least for me.  I think romance readers are more prone to borrow during a free run than fantasy readers.  Also, I find it easier to promote romance than fantasy. I did a free run on Rider’s Revenge with one of the same ad sites as I used for this book and only had about 2,400 downloads. That wasn’t enough to crack the 25K mark when it came off free.
  4. I’m not sure if it makes a difference, but I left the ad running during the free run for the book.  That means my ACOS numbers look horrible for this book, but that’s not how I judge ad performance anyway.
  5. This was also a book that I knew had some potential.  When it released in 2014 it sold maybe 50 copies without any advertising and has always performed well when I promote it and been fairly well-reviewed, too.
  6. These were legitimate readers borrowing or downloading the book.  (I feel I should mention that given recent click-botting issues we’re seeing these days.)  I wouldn’t recommend using some sort of service that gets you rank without exposing you to legitimate customers who will actually read your stuff.  Yes, I think the momentum from the promo goosed my AMS ad and let me get in front of more potential customers, but I’m just not sure that would be true if the book were botted to the top. And, honestly, the promos I used for each of those free runs were $100 or less to buy, so it’s not the like the honest approach is prohibitively expensive.

So there you have it.  My first AMS post.  A free run to get momentum plus AMS ads to sustain it can work and work well.

If you aren’t using AMS yet I’d recommend it even if that means more competition for me.  There is a learning curve and the ads do require maintaining, but they’re worth it to me to have steady long-term full-price sales.  The information is out there.  I taught myself through reading the help documents and experimenting to see what worked for my books and now there are forums where the ads are discussed routinely and people share their experiences.

Of course, if you don’t want to take the time to read through blog posts and forum posts and all of that to figure them out, I do have a book I published on AMS, AMS for Authors, that walks through the different types of ads and my experience with them and recommendations for how to use them. I think it’s helpful, but I’m probably biased.

So Here We Go

This is my new blog to hopefully consolidate my scattered pen names into one place. I’m not sure right now how often I’ll be publishing here, although I think I will aim to post “puppy” photos on Mondays.  (I call my dog a puppy still even though she’s four years old and over a hundred pounds…)

As I mentioned in my about me, I have way too many pen names, which is not a self-publishing strategy I would recommend to anyone because you can’t properly keep up with any of them and it makes it harder to gain momentum.

But it does fit with my overall personality.  (I triple-majored in college because everything seemed interesting to me and I didn’t see why I had to choose even though the last two years of undergrad were probably the hardest years of my life since I was also working full-time, too.)  And even though I know it’s not a winning strategy I don’t see myself changing anytime soon.

So you’ll probably see a mix of life rants, financial advice, writing thoughts and advice, and who knows what else on here.  If I’m really good about it those will be consistent enough you can count on finding something here a couple times a week.  Let’s say Mondays for puppy photos, Wednesdays for random deep thoughts, and Fridays for something AMS-related for now and see how it goes from there?

Sure, why not.